Kerry Drake FILE

Kerry Drake

Wyoming columnist

I don’t know what mystifies me more: Wyomingites who don’t care enough about their neighbors to wear a mask during a surging pandemic, or Gov. Mark Gordon not requiring people to cover their faces in public.

Both, however, anger me. Enough with the endless hand-wringing and excuse-making, all in the name of pandering to those who think they have constitutional rights to selfishness and stupidity.

Is that too blunt? Sorry, tell it to the daughter whose parent is dying alone on a ventilator because someone decided not to honor what the governor sees as their “personal responsibility” to protect others.

Why hasn’t the governor signed a statewide mask mandate?

The maddening thing about Gordon and State Health Officer Alexia Harrist only encouraging mask usage is that both readily acknowledge that wearing face coverings saves lives. They’ve been saying as much since the spring, when the first state emergency restrictions were issued on certain businesses and schools in the wake of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Pandemic Response coordinator, at a Oct. 28 press conference in Riverton. “I can tell you that the virus is not political,” she said. “We owe it to each other to wear a mask. The virus does not distinguish between young, old, Republicans, Democrats or independents. It’s not about party.”

The doctor holds an extremely political job, though, and stopped short of suggesting Wyoming impose a mandatory mask order. She said it’s good to listen to county, municipal and tribal officials and health officers so decisions can be made at a local level.

I’m personally glad that Teton and Laramie counties have joined the Wind River Indian Reservation tribal councils by deciding to enact mandatory mask ordinances, with Harrist’s approval. Living in Cheyenne, I was dismayed last month to see the number of retail-store customers who wore masks drop precipitously when those businesses relaxed their policies.

I found it most telling when Birx spoke movingly about the impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic on her own family. “When my grandmother brought [the flu] home to her mother, and she died, that is what you carry for the rest of your life,” she said.

Even the doctor in charge of coordinating the U.S. response to this miserable disease breaks it down to its most basic common denominator: Family is what matters most. Birx added she worries about her parents, both in their 90s, and keeping them safe in a COVID-19 world.

Wherever mask mandates are enacted, Birx said, they are an extra nudge to the public to do the right thing. “It’s not that you need government enforcement, it’s that we need constant reminders when we’re in public to wear our masks,” she said.

A nudge, though, isn’t what we need — a kick in the pants is. That’s precisely what a new study from the COVID-19 forecasting team at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation indicates.

Its model predicts that if 95% of Americans wore masks in public, 100,000 lives might be spared through February. Here’s what it would mean on a Wyoming level: It’s likely that several people you know wouldn’t needlessly be victims of preventable deaths.

Are there really people in this state who don’t believe that’s a cause worth uniting for, regardless of one’s personal political beliefs?

“I think it’s important for people to be able to imagine walking into a grocery store and how they could infect someone else,” Harrist said, “and how that chain reaction could end up in an infection in a long-term care facility or nursing home, and lead to a death or many deaths.”

“When we act irresponsibly, we put our liberties, we put our economy and we put our government in jeopardy,” Gordon said. “It is incredibly important that we take personal responsibility for our actions and understand how those actions can implicate others.”

Yet Gordon balks at telling anyone he or she must wear a mask, despite the fact that 34 other governors — including many Republicans — have had the wisdom and political courage to issue statewide mask mandates.

Gordon referred to how health officials talked earlier about flattening the curve, but described the surge in cases Wyoming is experiencing “more or less a straight line heading upwards.”

Telling people they should accept personal responsibility may appease people with a libertarian philosophical bent. But a corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.

In a world where many with coronavirus are asymptomatic but can spread it to anyone, anywhere, at any time, no one can ever pin the blame on them if a maskless sneeze sets off a chain reaction of disease and death.

Some will later recognize their harmful actions and, like Birx’s grandmother, may be haunted. But for many unwilling to accept the bare minimum of responsibility to protect others, we’re just letting them off the hook.

If you don’t want to be culpable for pretending this egregious mistake doesn’t matter, I urge you to ask the governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and can be reached at kerry.drake33@yahoo.com.

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